Osozaki Blooms -- Chapter 4

"She did WHAT????" the Emperor screamed, eyes wild and chest heaving, face suffused with horror.

Nuriko cringed, wilting under that horrible anger. Inside, he was crying and kicking himself for being unable to protect Miaka, but outside he tried to be calm - for Hotohori's sake. "She believes that her friend Yui may have been taken to Kutou to become Seiryuu no Miko. She thought that she could persuade her not to do it if she could talk to her. Gomen nasai, heika-sama. I have failed you..." He hung his head.

Hotohori jumped to his feet, demanding that his horse be saddled. He wanted to go after Miaka himself. Nuriko's heart went out to the Emperor as he was brutally rebuffed by his counselors and advisors. One of them beat him down even more soundly than the others, "Heika-sama. Think about this - the head of another country going into Kutou uninvited? Do you want to start a war?"

Nuriko's heart bled as he watched all the fire drain out of the Emperor's eyes. Hotohori's entire posture drooped as his voice took on a subordinate tone, "I see... I was wrong." He shuffled back to his throne and dropped down into its unfeeling embrace. Nuriko watched, disbelieving. Could it be that the Emperor felt as lost as he did, sometimes? I'm here for you, Hotohori-sama. All you need do is ask...

Hotohori leaned his head into his hands, still down from his advisor's harsh words. He dismissed the rest of the court, leaving he and Nuriko alone in the throne room. He raised a weary head to meet Nuriko's eyes, his own still ringed with defeat, "It wasn't your fault, Nuriko. I'm sure of it. Miaka is a strong-willed girl with a mind of her own - I don't think anything you said would have deterred her, even if you'd had the chance to try."

Nuriko shook his head a little, still unsure, "But surely..."

Hotohori rose from the dais and descended to stand with Nuriko, "Walk with me?" Nuriko nodded mutely, following the Emperor out of the throne room. Hotohori sighed, "Tamahome will see her safely home, I'm sure. Maybe they'll even bring her friend back with them. And that new seishi that you mentioned - Chichiri? He sounds like a formidable ally."

Nuriko heard the desperation in Hotohori's voice and hurriedly jumped in, "That's exactly right, heika-sama! I'm sure that she'll come back all smiles and cheeriness. Ne?" He smiled widely. Hotohori grinned hesitantly in response. Nuriko continued, "Good! I'm glad that we agree. Why don't you do something to take your mind off of all this?"

Hotohori smiled, "An excellent idea, Nuriko." He sighed, making a face, "The Leaning Tower of State Documents on my desk could probably use some of my time..."

Nuriko gave him a playful smack on the arm, laughing. Then, suddenly realizing the liberty that he had taken, he hastily apologized and ran off. Hotohori rubbed his arm slightly, still smiling, "Arigato, Nuriko. Arigato," then headed back towards his office.

Nuriko slowed his run, realizing that the Emperor hadn't yelled at him for what he'd done. Maybe he didn't mind my being familiar...? The thought brought a huge grin to his face and he resumed his run, now bursting with excitement - he had to tell Emi! When he reached his room, Nuriko yelled for Emi, excitement causing him to bounce in place as he waited. When no answer came to his summons, Nuriko searched his rooms for his maid and dear friend. He still didn't find her.

Slightly disgruntled, Nuriko drew a bath and washed himself. For the first time in several years, there was no Emi to brush his hair for him when he got out of the bath and dressed in pants and a tunic of sun gold color. He reached for his brush, only to realize that it was with Miaka. He cursed quietly for a moment before leaving his room in search of a brush. His hair was trailing around him in a sodden, unkempt mass. He could feel his face burning in embarrassment.

He considered going to the Emperor and asking for a brush, but decided against it - it was too embarrassing. With another muttered curse, he pulled his hair ribbon from his pocket and tied his hair into a loose ponytail at the nape of his neck. He must look ridiculous... He'd have to go into the city to buy a new brush... Atashi no baka! Why didn't I think about this earlier? His face was still a bright red when he reached the stables.

Kechiko smiled when he saw him, then frowned at the state of Nuriko's normally immaculate hair. Nuriko blushed even more, "I gave my brush to Miaka. I need to go buy another. Do you mind if I borrow Galaxy for the day?"

Kechiko looked uncertain for once, "Are you sure you can control him in those kinds of crowds?"

Nuriko nodded slowly, "I think I can. If not, then I'll stable him outside the capital for the day, OK?"

Kechiko nodded his permission and waved Nuriko towards Galaxy, who was already nickering in excitement. He watched the boy and the horse for a few moments before resuming his tasks with a light chuckle. "A brush..."

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Nuriko rode into the capital, feeling Galaxy's curiosity through his legs. He patted Galaxy's neck, "Good boy, Galaxy. Don't get excited." Galaxy calmed as Nuriko walked him through the streets of the capital, finally stopping and dismounting at the booth where he had bought the old brush. He was pleased to note that it was still there. He smiled at the young man behind the counter as he pointed out the brush that he wanted - it was similar to Kourin's, but not so much like it that it was obvious.

The young man smiled and packaged up the brush for him as Nuriko handed him his money, "Arigato!" He gathered up Galaxy's reins and his small package and found himself a quiet corner to pull the tie out of his now dry hair and brush it. He gathered his hair and deftly wove the long indigo strands into their customary braid. He felt better, now. He packed the brush back up and pondered what to do for a moment. Was he in the mood to do some shopping...? No, he decided - not really.

His eyes wandered, almost involuntarily, to the bulk of his Sensei's temple at the edge of the capital. Even as he thought of going to visit his Sensei, he felt his heart tugging him in a different direction. Before he quite knew where he was going, Nuriko found himself outside his father's shop, watching Rokou go about the daily business of a young merchant tailor. His heart began to hammer in his ears and he moved to rush away - before his brother could see him. He wasn't fast enough.

Rokou had left the booth and was walking quickly towards him, "Ryuuen-chan?? Is that you?" Nuriko turned slowly, a slightly embarrassed look on his face, "H-hai, aniki..." Rokou turned to tell another young man to watch the shop, then ran to Nuriko, wrapping his arms tightly around his younger brother, "You're back!"

Nuriko patted his brother's back, a little awkwardly, "Hai. Though our troubles are far from over... But I am back for now." He pushed Rokou away from him and gave him a playful smile, "Didn't I tell you I'd see you again, aniki?"

Rokou looped one arm around Nuriko's shoulders, "That you did, Ryuuen-chan - that you did." Suddenly he paused, taking a good look at his younger brother. He frowned slightly, then looking somewhat flustered, he began to talk, "I hate to sound rude, Ryuuen-chan, but - uh... your clothing..."

Nuriko looked up at Rokou, then down at himself. His voice was quiet when he spoke, "I've learned that I can't protect Suzaku no Miko very well in female clothes - and everyone at the palace knows what I am, now..." The self-loathing was so clear in his voice that even Rokou picked up on it. The arm that was encircling Nuriko's shoulders tightened, and he wisely moved the conversation into safer waters.

Nuriko pulled out from under Rokou's arm. He was about to decline when he saw the hurt in his aniki's expression. He nodded once, "Aa - that's fine, Rokou. I just need to find a place to stable Galaxy..."

Rokou's face lit up and he grinned, "I know just the place..."

Several blocks later, Nuriko was beginning to get suspicious, "Aniki - where are we going? All the stables and restaurants are back the other way."

Rokou smiled and patted his shoulder, "Well there are some other people who would like to see you again, and I thought maybe you wouldn't mind..."

Nuriko's mind abruptly went into shock and he stopped walking, "Are you crazy?" He held his hands up and shook his head, "Iie, Rokou. I'm not going to see 'kaasan and 'tousan. No way."

Rokou's expression hardened and he took Nuriko's arm by the elbow. He leaned down slightly, "You owe it to them, Ryuuen. They've been absolutely miserable for 8 years and it's mostly your fault. You owe it to them to try to help." Seeing Nuriko's expression, Rokou continued, in a kinder tone, "Come on, otouto-chan. It won't be so bad - they really want to see you. Onegai?"

That one word undid him. Nuriko mutely nodded his head and let Rokou lead him the rest of the way to his house. When they reached it, Nuriko led Galaxy around to the back and into the stable, leaving him in one of the loose boxes with plenty of hay. He squared his shoulders and walked back out into the yard. You can do this, Nuriko. You're a Suzaku Seishi. You've faced down assassins and all sorts of crazy people. You can handle your own parents - it should be easy. Ne? Somehow, he still didn't think it would be that simple...

He folded his arms into the wide sleeves of his slightly altered tunic and walked back to the front of the house. Emi had found a tailor who was willing to alter his men's clothes to have some of the features of a dress - a longer skirt, longer and wider sleeves, and the overall look was more feminine. He had been extremely grateful and wondered after the identity of this tailor, but Emi had refused to give him the name. He shook his head, realizing his own stalling tactics and approached the door. Rokou was nowhere in sight - neither were his parents. Nuriko had a sudden urge to turn tail and run, but before he could make up his mind to do it, the door opened.

An old woman stood on the other side. Her dark indigo hair had faded into a storm-tossed gray. Her smooth angel's face had pulled into tight, permanent-looking worry lines. But she was still beautiful - at least to him. Her hands shook where they rested on the door. One of her hands rose to her mouth and her eyes filled with tears. Nuriko swallowed as a lump rose in his throat. He could barely get his voice to work - the word came out as a whisper, "'Kaasan?"

The woman let out a choked gasp and threw the door open the rest of the way to enfold Nuriko in her arms. She began to sob, gasping out his name every other breath. She kissed his face, his head, his hands, then pulled back to look over every inch of his features, stroking his hair and petting his clothes. Her eyes took on a distant look and a shy smile crossed her face. She leaned in close to whisper into his ear, "I thought the gold would look good on you, Ryuuen-chan." Then she grabbed him up into another back-breaking hug, which he hesitantly returned. She buried her face into his shoulder, "Your aniki didn't think so, but I knew I was right. Oh, Ryuuen-chan - it was the least I could do for you! But why wait so long to visit? You have to come in and talk with me! You'll stay a while, won't you? Onegai?" She lifted her tear-streaked face to look into his eyes, "Onegai?"

Ryuuen opened his mouth to answer, when he heard a door slam from the back of the house. His body gave a convulsive shudder when he recognized his father's massive frame. He held out a hand in entreaty, "Otou-sama..."

His father snorted and turned his back, "Get out of my house, boy. We don't want you here." Nuriko's mother gasped in dismay, "No! You can't mean that! He's our son!" His father turned a cold shoulder to his wife's cries, "No son of ours would have done what he has done. He abandoned this family in its hour of greatest need - we have no obligations to support one such as he." He continued his walk up the stairs.

Nuriko's mother was crying in earnest, now. Nuriko wrapped his arms around her and tried to comfort her to no avail. Rokou stepped up from where he'd been hiding behind their father, his own eyes red, "Gomen nasai, otouto-chan. Gomen nasai..."

Nuriko nodded, not entirely trusting his voice, yet. He pulled his mother closer, placing a kiss on top of her head, then pushing her towards Rokou. Finally thinking he had his voice under control, Nuriko gripped Rokou's arm tightly, "Daijabou, aniki. I'll be all right. Take care of okaa-san." He turned and walked back out of the house. He retrieved Galaxy and mounted, feeling numb inside. He didn't even remember most of the ride back to the palace, or returning Galaxy to the stables, or walking to his rooms. He just knew that all of a sudden, he was there, staring at his door as if he'd never seen it before.

Kechiko had had the presence of mind to call for Emi when he saw Nuriko return to the palace. He gave her the brush and explained what he had seen. Emi grabbed the brush, eyes full of dismay, then ran off to Nuriko's rooms. She found him exactly as he'd gotten there - standing outside his rooms, staring at the door. Emi put a hand on his shoulder, "Nuriko-sama? Daijabou ka?" There was no response. Nuriko continued to stare at the door, unheeding of the tears streaming down his cheeks. Emi put a hand to her mouth and shook her head. Nuriko just stood there. Emi took his hand into hers and rubbed it a bit, "Nuriko-sama? Onegai... It's Emi..." Still no response. Emi dropped Nuriko's hand and ran towards the only other person who might be able to help.

Hotohori looked up, startled, at the knock on his door. The pile of State Documents had gotten smaller, but not significantly so. He just couldn't keep his mind on it... He called for his visitor to come in. The flustered and upset young woman was crying and clutching something in her hands. Two of his advisors followed her in, apologizing for the interruption. He was about to dismiss her, when something about her face made him pause - he knew the girl. He stood up from his desk and waved his advisors back. He walked over to the girl and put a hand on her shoulder, "What's the matter - Emi, is it?"

The woman looked up at him, trying to swallow her tears and nodded, "H-hai, heika-sama. It's Nuriko-sama. I don't know what's wrong with him - he's just standing in front of his room, staring at the door... He won't talk to me! Heika-sama, onegai! You have to help..."

Hotohori patted Emi's shoulder and nodded, "It's all right, Emi-san. I will go talk to him." He gathered up his robes and walked the short distance to Nuriko's rooms. He was exactly as Emi had described - just standing there, staring at his door, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Hotohori walked up to him and put a hand on the other seishi's shoulder, "Nuriko. What's wrong?"

Nuriko didn't respond. Hotohori tried another tactic, "Nuriko, it's Hotohori. Emi said you wouldn't talk to her. Will you talk to me? Onegai, Nuriko - tell me what's wrong." The shoulder under Hotohori's hand started to shake, but there was no other response. Finally, Hotohori opted for the direct approach. He opened Nuriko's door and led him into his rooms. He sat Nuriko down on his bed and closed the outer door. He pulled a chair up to the bed and sat down, watching Nuriko's face. There was still no change.

Hotohori took Nuriko's hands into his and tried to rub some warmth back into them. He sighed, heavily, "Come on, Nuriko. Talk to me. I want to help..." He laughed, humorlessly, "If this is all some ploy to get my undivided attention, I have to admit that it's working." That startled a response out of the other seishi - Nuriko shook his head, then lapsed back into stillness.

Hotohori got up off of his chair and sat next to Nuriko on the bed. He wrapped an arm around Nuriko's shoulders, "OK, Nuriko - there is a limit to what I'm willing to do to get your attention, here... So, you'd better come to your senses soon." Finally, Nuriko seemed to come back to himself a little. He blinked, looked down at himself, then up at the Emperor, who was sitting very close to him. His face went beat red and he jumped up off the bed, hands folded into his sleeves and covering his mouth, "Heika-sama! Gomen nasai!"

Hotohori sighed and shook his head, "I thought we'd gotten past that, Nuriko. I'm here as a friend - why don't you tell me what's wrong?"

The sincerity in the Emperor's voice filled his eyes as well. Nuriko found himself caught in them - Hotohori's beautiful eyes. But, his own shame got the better of him. He had no right to trouble the Emperor with his own family problems. And he had his pride, after all. If his father disowned him, then it was no one else's business but his. He shook his head, "Iie, Hotohori-sama. I can't. Gomen ne."

Hotohori frowned as he stood, "Nuriko. If something is troubling you, I want to know. Maybe I can help...?"

Nuriko allowed himself to stare into the Emperor's eyes for a moment. Maybe... No. He looked away, "I'm sorry - I just can't. Maybe... maybe later, Hotohori-sama." He backed up so he wasn't blocking the Emperor's path to the door, and said in his most subdued voice, "It's been a long day for me, Hotohori-sama. I'd like to take a bath and go to bed, if that's all right with you."

Hotohori's frown deepened, but he recognized when he had overstayed his welcome. On his way out the door, he stopped to put a hand on Nuriko's shoulder, "If you need anything, Nuriko... You know where I'll be, ne?"

Nuriko nodded, but made no other response. Once Hotohori had left, Nuriko took a deep, calming breath. The last few months had been hard on everyone - himself especially, it seemed. And he'd been reacting horribly to everything that happened. He never used to be so weak! Nuriko angrily started pulling his hair out of the braid and running his fingers through it. Am I a baby? A weakling? No. I, Nuriko, am a Suzaku Seishi. I am stronger than this, I know I am. He looked up at the mirror and gave his reflection a once over. Finally, he was satisfied - no one would take advantage of him again. No one would play with his emotions like that again. And no one, but no one would ever again underestimate Nuriko-sama. It was more than time he started acting as befit his position. More than time.

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Hotohori walked back towards his office, deep in thought. It wasn't like Nuriko to push him away when he was trying to be friendly. Normally, that much attention from him would have had Nuriko falling over his feet to get more. This wasn't like him at all, and Hotohori didn't like it. He slammed a door in my face as effectively as if he'd physically done it. Now why would he be so quick to shut me out? Whatever it was, Hotohori hoped that someone could get to the bottom of it and soon.

The Emperor opened the door to his office and stepped inside. He lifted his outer robe from where he'd thrown it on the chair and put it back on. Time to go face the court for the day... He sighed heavily and walked out into the throne room. Immediately, all the soldiers were at attention and all the courtiers were bowing and scraping. Hotohori put a hand to his temple, feeling a headache coming on. He made his way to the throne and sat, then waved his hand at the court to tell them to get on with what they were doing. Life resumed its flow around him. Around him, but not including him. I hope Miaka comes back, soon...

A sudden noise at the outside door made him look up. The vision that his eyes beheld made him stand straight up, jaw dropping. Before a word could even make it past his lips, he was off the dais and hugging that precious vision to his chest. "Miaka!"

Miaka was fairly stunned, for her part. She stood in his embrace, not resisting, but not returning it. Hotohori couldn't find it within himself to care. He had her back and he was not going to let her go. But when Tamahome's angry expression finally penetrated the fog of joy that surrounded him, Hotohori reluctantly let his beloved go. She wasn't his to claim. Not yet, anyway. Miaka started talking, explaining all that had happened, including the discovery of her friend, Yui. Hotohori had to smile watching her. With her return, she'd brought a life back to him - one where he was included, not just ruling from outside.

"...And you haven't met the fourth seishi! We found him, well he found us, but that doesn't matter. His name is Chichiri!"

Hotohori looked up at the fox-eyed man - I wonder what makes him smile so much... - and nodded. Chichiri held up a hand and blushed a little, "DAAA!" Hotohori blinked, Now what was that supposed to mean? He looked around at the three people crowding around him and quietly wished for Nuriko to get here soon. The other seishi wasn't always all there, but he was slightly more down to earth than this bunch...

Almost as if Hotohori's thoughts had brought him, Nuriko appeared. He ran to Miaka and grabbed her into a fierce hug, all smiles and laughter - as if this afternoon hadn't happened at all. Hotohori briefly caught his eye and Nuriko's face darkened, but only for a moment. He gave the Emperor a huge smile, then turned back to Miaka.

Nuriko grabbed Miaka into a hug, She'ssafeShe'ssafeShe'ssafe!! He couldn't believe it - his heart felt like it would pound right out of his chest. It was worth it - every hurt he'd ever received, every emotional wound his family had inflicted - he'd go through it all a thousand times as long as he could have Miaka safe in his arms. Imouto... I'm never going to leave you again, I swear it! Miaka was laughing as she hugged him, nowhere near as stiff as she'd been with the Emperor. Nuriko had been hanging around the door and watching them. He couldn't help but feel a well of satisfaction at that...

But, her next words almost froze his heart, "Nuriko, you're still being gay!"

His heart skipped a beat, and he felt like he might have to back away from her, but he covered it quickly - he was done being that weakling. Not anymore - he wasn't going to take the coward's way out. He fell back on his natural defense - joking. "Miaka, you're still being stupid!"

She laughed, reading it for the lame attempt at a joke that it was, and wrapped her arms around him, letting him lead her out of the throne room. Nuriko dragged her back towards his rooms, eager to spend some quality time with her.

With Miaka and Nuriko gone, the other three seishi sized each other up. Hotohori could feel the rise in power from Tamahome's chi - he'd gotten stronger since they'd last seen each other. And this new seishi, Chichiri, had the strongest and most well-controlled chi of them all. He also looked far older than the others. He would be a formidable ally - or so he hoped....

Tamahome tried to keep his anger under control - he'd only just barely gotten Miaka back when Nuriko managed to steal her away from him! That little bitch! Was he working with the Emperor? In spite of Nuriko's reassurances, he still didn't think that the relationship between him and Miaka was totally innocent - after all, who wouldn't love Miaka? And Hotohori had made it very clear that he considered himself Tamahome's rival where winning Miaka's heart was concerned. He cursed quietly - at least Chichiri didn't seem to have any romantic attachment to his beloved...

Chichiri watched the Miko leave with her Seishi, confused at all the undercurrents of emotion in the room. It was almost worse than - no. He didn't want to think about that. Chichiri turned his attention to the other two seishi - the Emperor and the other one that he'd already met: Hotohori and Tamahome. The two were staring each other down like wolves preparing to fight over a piece of meat. He nearly shuddered at the waves of anger coming off the other two. Finally deciding that he couldn't take it anymore, Chichiri spoke up, "Sumimasen... Is everything all right between you two, no da?"

Both of the other seishi jerked their heads in his direction, wearing very confused expressions. Tamahome snorted and turned his head away. Hotohori was somewhat more polite - he changed the subject, "I'll have one of my advisors show you to a room, Chichiri. As a Suzaku Seishi, you are entitled to rooms in Konan's Palace, for use whenever you need them."

Chichiri recognized the evasion for what it was, but bowed anyway, "Arigato, heika-sama. That will be fine." He followed the young servant out of the throne room, tossing worried glances at the two younger seishi as he went. I'll have to talk to them, no da. It is no good for the seishi to be divided like this... They came to a stop outside a set of double doors and the servant opened them for him. He stepped inside and couldn't help but stare at the opulent surroundings. A wandering monk never had much in the way of possessions - these quarters were truly palatial, compared to what he was used to. Even his rooms at Mt. Taikyoku hadn't been so nice.

When the servant had left, Chichiri allowed himself to spend some time exploring his new home. He examined the bathing chamber - which was bigger than most rooms that he'd lived in - the bed that was large enough for three or four people to sleep in, and the whole room just for entertaining guests. The peasant boy buried deep inside the cheerful monk was ready to faint at all the luxuries presented to him. Fortunately, Chichiri, the Suzaku seishi was a bit more practical than that - else he might have spent the rest of the day gawking at his new set of rooms. He allowed himself a real smile underneath his mask. Things would certainly be interesting from here on in...

He walked outside and was nearly bowled over by his ever-exuberant Miko. He was so startled that he promptly turned SD and covered his head with his kasa, "Suzaku no Miko! Be a little more careful, no da!"

Miaka put a hand to her mouth and bowed, "Gomen ne, Chichiri! I didn't see you there - I was looking for Tamahome..."

Chichiri de-SDed and patted Miaka on the shoulder, "Daijabou, Miaka-san. The last time I saw Tamahome-kun he was with Hotohori in the throne room."

Miaka smiled and yelled, "Arigato!" then took off at breakneck speed for the throne room. An amused chuckle sounded from behind Chichiri. He whirled to find the purple-haired seishi standing behind him and smiling. He spoke, "Ne, Chichiri-san - you get used to Miaka's ways after a while. She has Tama-chan on the brain..."

Chichiri smiled, "Aa... Nuriko, ne?"

Nuriko bowed, "Hai, Chichiri-san. Can I help you with something?"

Chichiri nodded and began to walk towards the lake. Nuriko fell into step next to him. Chichiri took a moment to collect his thoughts, then spoke, "Nuriko - what is the situation with the other seishi? They do not seem to get along very well, no da..."

The purple haired seishi let out a heavy sigh - he was aware of the problem, apparently. He was silent for a while before speaking, "Tamahome and Hotohori-sama are both in love with the same girl, Chichiri-san. And the girl has made it clear, time and again, that she loves Tamahome. Unfortunately, that won't stop Hotohori-sama from loving her."

Chichiri frowned under his mask, "Suzaku no Miko."

Nuriko nodded, "Hai. She doesn't want to hurt Hotohori-sama, but she can not love him. It is hard on all three of them."

The older seishi's curiosity got the better of him, "And how do you fit into all of this, no da?" He was surprised when Nuriko's face went pale. "You are in love with Miaka-san, as well, no da?"

Nuriko turned his head away to stare out at the lake, then slowly folded his legs to sit on a nearby boulder, "I suppose that you could say that I am, Chichiri-san - though not the way you mean it. I love Miaka as one would love a little sister, and I can not bear to see her being hurt by this - as I know that she is. I would spare her that pain if I could..."

Chichiri sat down next to him and rested his staff on the boulder, "The relationship you have with her is strange, no da. I can feel the tie between you - it is stronger than any I have ever seen, short of those between blood relatives. At times, it is even stronger than the bond that she shares with Tamahome-kun..."

Nuriko's face paled a second time, though the corners of his mouth lifted in a bitter smile, "Bonds between blood aren't all that strong, Chichiri-san. Believe me when I say that."

Chichiri leaned forwards, resting his elbows on his knees, "Tell me about it?"

Nuriko shook his head, "No. It is too personal, and too recent a pain. Gomen ne."

The two sat in silence for a while longer, just enjoying the sunset over the lake. When Nuriko spoke, his voice was quiet, "Ne, Chichiri-san?" Chichiri turned towards him and motioned for him to continue, "You've been around longer than we have, and you've seen a lot of the world, ne? Tell me - does it ever get any easier?"

Chichiri sat up, folding his arms across his chest, "What do you mean?"

"Life, Chichiri-san. Does it ever get any easier? Sometimes, it just hurts too badly... Does it ever stop?"

Chichiri stood up slowly, removing his mask. He stared out over the lake, seeing a pair of soft, beautiful eyes, shadowed in anguish. He rubbed a finger over the scar on his face before replacing his mask, "Gomen ne, Nuriko. It doesn't." Then he turned away from the younger seishi and wandered back to his rooms.

Nuriko sat for a while longer, contemplating the turns that his life had taken in the last few days. He couldn't go home again - he knew that, now. That part of his life was over. He just couldn't face his father again, knowing what the older man thought of him. He felt sorry for his mother - but even she wasn't worth facing that again. Not yet, anyway. As for Rokou... he'd managed to take care of their parents alone for 8 years - he could do it a while longer.

Nuriko leaned back so that he was lying on the boulder, staring up at the emerging stars. He needed to tell someone about this - he really did. But who could he tell? He couldn't tell the Emperor - that was out of the question. And Tamahome had his own problems, that was clear. Miaka... she would understand, for sure - but she had problems as well. It wasn't fair to burden her with his pain in addition to her own. Especially since she felt things as deeply as she did. And Chichiri...

Something about the older seishi made Nuriko hesitant to dump his problems on him. Though he wore a smiling face at all times, and was ever-cheerful like Miaka - something told Nuriko that it was mostly for show. Of all people, he understood how such a thing could occur. You care so deeply for other people that you don't want them to see your own pain - then the next thing you know, you're wearing a jester's mask to keep them from seeing how deeply you're hurt. Oh yes, Nuriko understood that all too well. And so, he couldn't recount his troubles to Chichiri, either.

And Emi... she'd been so good to him, all these years. But could she really, truly understand all that he'd bottled up inside? Nuriko sighed - no, he didn't think that she could. She'd been a maid of the court for most of her life. A pampered girl who didn't truly understand the pain of the real world. Nuriko rolled over onto his side, then stood up, stretching. That left only one person. He ran off to get Galaxy for a night-time ride. The stallion might not be the most active of conversationalists, but he could surely listen.

*    *    *    *    *

Nuriko growled as he sat up, angrily rubbing his eyes. What was going on? He'd heard all sorts of screaming and yelling - it had woken him up. He rolled out of bed and pushed his full mane of hair back from his face. Dammit, he didn't have time to tie it back. He tightened the sash of his short robe so that it was firmly closed over his chest and staggered out into the hallway. The noise was coming from - Sweet Suzaku, no! - Miaka's room. Nuriko broke into a run.

He reached Miaka's room just in time to see the assassin run out of it. He paused just long enough to see that Miaka was all right, then ran after the assassin. When he saw that he wasn't going to catch up, he gathered his chi and broke off a piece of the stone railing. He raised it over his head and hurled it towards the assassin, hoping to knock him out before he made it over the wall. Unfortunately for the wall, the assassin made it over and the stone railing made a rather large dent in it.

Nuriko blushed, then hearing footsteps behind him, he tried to cover for himself, "How awful! He broke the wall!" A hand whacked into his head and Tamahome's irritated voice came from above him, "You did it, didn't you?" Nuriko's blush deepened as he sheepishly nodded. Tamahome smiled at him and patted his shoulder, "I'm sure Hotohori-sama will forgive you."

The two walked back to Miaka's room to hear the rest of the story. Apparently, the Seiryuu seishi were upping the stakes. They wanted to hold Tamahome hostage in return for their not burning any more villages. Seeing the horrified look on Tamahome's face made Nuriko remember the four children that made up most of the younger seishi's family. They'd be defenseless if their village was attacked. Obviously, Tamahome and Miaka were thinking the same thing. Miaka grabbed onto Tamahome's arm and begged him not to go, "We'll find another way! Tamahome, onegai!" Reluctantly, Tamahome agreed to stay.

As everyone else was leaving Tamahome and Miaka to their rest, Nuriko tried to catch the younger man's eyes - he hadn't been convinced, Nuriko could see it in his face. The stupid kid might just try something even more stupid than normal, and he'd be left with a heartbroken younger sister on his hands. He managed to catch Tamahome's gaze, and the guilt hidden within its depths convinced Nuriko that he'd been right. Damn it! He shook his head slightly and Tamahome paled. Nuriko opened his mouth to say something, but this time it was Tamahome who shook his head. His expression made it clear what his intentions were - Miaka was important, but ties of blood called him even stronger than her siren song.

Nuriko swallowed hard at the jealousy that welled up inside him - somehow this whole situation just wasn't fair... He nodded and Tamahome gave him a small, gratified smile. Miaka had missed the entire exchange - and that was all to the good. She'd be hurt enough come tomorrow morning without knowing that Nuriko had been in on the whole thing... He headed back to his room, already dreading the events that would unfold come daybreak.

*    *    *    *    *

Nuriko rubbed at his eyes, as he slowly pulled himself out of the soft blankets of his bed. This was the second time in twelve hours that Miaka's screaming had awakened him out of a sound sleep. Not that he could blame her - especially since he knew why she was screaming. He didn't even bother pulling his hair out of his face as he scrambled out of bed this time. Still rubbing his eyes, he stumbled out into the hallway, looking for Miaka. She was running straight at him, tears streaming down her face. Nuriko felt his heart break, watching her. This definitely wasn't fair...

Miaka ran straight into his arms, "Nuriko!!"

He held her tightly, trying to provide a pillar of strength for her, since Tamahome wasn't here to do it. He kissed her hair and rocked her slowly back and forth, lightly rubbing her back as he did so. "Sh... It's OK, Miaka-chan. I'm here... What's the matter?"

Miaka continued to press her face into Nuriko's chest, mumbling out something incoherent as she did so. Hearing footsteps, Nuriko looked up to find the Emperor tossing a jealous look his way. He closed his eyes and buried his head in Miaka's hair - this just wasn't his day. When Hotohori-sama reached out a hand to touch Miaka's shoulder, she transferred her choke-hold to the Emperor. Nuriko watched the two of them and shook his head - it definitely wasn't his day...

Hotohori held the sobbing girl in his arms, trying to figure out what was the matter. Finally, he pushed her back slightly so that he could peer into her face, "Where's Tamahome, Miaka?" More tears filled her eyes and she held up a piece of paper, "I don't know! When I woke up this morning, he was gone. But I found this notebook - it was open and it has writing on it. But, I can't read the characters of your world..."

Wordlessly, Hotohori took the paper from her and read it aloud, watching her face drop as he did. But, when he got to the bottom of the page... Ai shiteiru. He couldn't read that. If he had any chance whatsoever of winning Miaka's heart - she couldn't know that. It just wasn't fair. Even when Tamahome isn't here, he's a rival!

The look on Miaka's face was a study in true horror. She was opening and closing her mouth, but no words were escaping. Hotohori didn't know what to do for her. Fortunately, Nuriko did. He gathered Miaka back into his arms, rubbing her arms and back and kissing her forehead. Hotohori felt a surge of jealousy as he watched her relax in the other seishi's arms. Why am I jealous? I should just be happy that he can help her... He turned away from that tender scene and headed back to his throne room, trying to quash the hopeful feeling that was rising in his heart.

An hour later that feeling was anything but happy, "You want to what?"

Miaka tossed him a huge smile, "Nuriko, Chichiri, and I would like to go look for the rest of the seishi, Hotohori-sama. You saw what Tamahome wrote in his letter - once I've gathered the other seishi, he'll come back!" The look in her eyes was so hopeful - he couldn't bear to refuse her this. Not when it had been he who requested that she find the other seishi in the first place.

He scrambled for one last protest, "But the clues for finding the seishi were in the Shi Jin Ten Chi Sho that was left in Kutou..." When her face fell, he immediately regretted it, "I didn't mean to accuse you, Miaka... Gomen ne." He swallowed the lump in his throat and slowly nodded his head, "Ganbatte. I wish I could go with you."

Miaka bestowed another brilliant smile on him and turned to the other seishi, "Let's go!"

*    *    *    *    *

Nuriko watched the road ahead of them, carefully. Nothing was going to hurt his imouto - not this time. I swear it. Miaka's hold on his waist tightened, and he smiled slightly. Wo ai ni, Miaka-chan... Her overly-cheerful words brought him such a measure of joy - it was worth losing the rest of his family to have her back. He cast a brief glance back at her as she gasped, "Oi, Miaka-chan - what's wrong?"

She held the mirror up, "The sign for Mountain... It's showing on Taiitsu-kun's mirror..."

Nuriko frowned, "Mt. Leikaku is straight ahead..." He shuddered slightly, remembering his last visit to the stronghold of Konan's infamous bandits, "But the whole area is infested with bandits."

Miaka grinned and patted his back, "We have Chichiri-san with us! He'll take care of those bandits!" She turned around to consult the older seishi, only to discover that he was no longer there, "Ne, Nuriko - Chichiri's gone!"

Nuriko, deep in thought about the bandits, almost didn't hear her. When her words penetrated, he almost jerked the horse to a stop, "Nanii?? Where is he, then?"

Miaka shrugged, "I just turned around and he wasn't there. What do we do?"

Nuriko frowned, "Well, Chichiri can take care of himself, I'm sure. Why don't we stop at the Inn over there and get lunch. That should give him a chance to catch up..."

Miaka perked up, the minute she heard the word 'lunch', "All right! Let's go!"

Nuriko laughed and kicked the horse into a canter, saying below his breath, "Wo ai ni, Miaka-chan..."

*    *    *    *    *

Miaka was so tuned towards the thought of lunch, that she almost missed Nuriko's response to her enthusiastic comments. It took her a moment to puzzle out what he'd said, but puzzle it out, she did. She almost fell off the horse in shock. Wo ai ni? Nanii? What did he mean by that...? She stared hard at the red-clad boy in front of her and shook her head, He loves me, too? Why? I have enough trouble with two boys in love with me! She buried her heated face into Nuriko's partially unbound hair, Why me? And isn't he gay? Maybe that's why he called me stupid, before... Oi! Maybe if I pretend I didn't hear, then it'll go away. It's worth a shot, ne?

*    *    *    *    *

Nuriko felt Miaka bury her face in his hair and smiled, "Miaka-chan, we're here! This is the inn - why don't we go inside and get some food?"

Miaka jerked her head up and slid off the horse, "Hai!"

Nuriko laughed as he dismounted and tied the horse up outside the door. His next glimpse of Miaka's face caused his smile to turn into a frown, Why is she blushing? Was it something I said...? Oh no. She didn't hear me say... His own face started to heat up and he hurried past Miaka to open the door to the inn, Oh, I hope not. She's confused enough as it is...

They sat down at a table in the center of the inn and ordered their food. Nuriko couldn't help but grin at the sheer amount that Miaka ordered, She never changes, does she? But when she began to babble on about Chichiri missing all the food, he knew something was up. He caught one of her hands, "You don't have to pretend with me, you know."

Miaka blushed and pulled her hand out of his grasp. Nuriko scowled, "I know you're upset about Tamahome and all. It's OK to not be cheerful all the time, you know..."

She giggled and waved her hand at him, "No, Nuriko - it's fine, really..."

Nuriko growled and stood up, slamming his hands down on the table - and through it. His face turned beet red as he stammered something about the wood being rotten. He hid his face in his hands as they moved to another table, I don't believe that I did that... The waiter walked over and paled at the sight of the other table. He hurriedly put the food down and rushed away. Nuriko turned back to Miaka who was busy going starry-eyed over her food. He smiled and did a quick survey of the room. Those men in the corner look awfully suspicious... They were laughing as they watched Miaka eat.

Something clicked in Nuriko's mind, "Miaka - don't eat the food!" He stared in horror at the carnage on the table, "Baka! You ate mine, too!" When Miaka's face paled and she dropped the chopsticks, Nuriko's heart nearly stopped. She collapsed off the bench onto the floor, clutching her stomach. Nuriko threw himself down next to her, "Miaka!" Unfortunately, the men didn't give him a chance to check on her - they attacked mercilessly.

Anger gave fuel to Nuriko's power as his seishi symbol blazed forth, "Kisama!!" He broke the sword of the one attacking him and kicked him across the room. Heart in his throat, he turned to take care of the one who was bearing down on Miaka. There was no way he would make it in time. Before he could even realize what he was doing, he had thrown himself across the room and screamed, "KOURIN!!!"

He heard a sick crunching sound somewhere above him. Their attacker fell to the side, a bloody hole in his chest. Nuriko's eyes almost filled with tears when Hotohori's form was revealed. The Emperor lowered his sword and rushed over to Miaka's other side. Nuriko prayed that neither one of them heard his scream, Atashi no BAKA! I've got to be more careful... He became aware that Hotohori was speaking, "Is she all right, Nuriko?"

Nuriko's hands hovered protectively around Miaka's still form, "I don't know. I'm all right, because I didn't eat - but Miaka did."

Miaka raised dazed eyes to her two seishi. For a moment, she didn't speak, then she offered Nuriko a harassed smile, "No, I just ate too fast - the food got caught in my throat. Nuriko - water?" Nuriko promptly smacked her upside the head. "Baka!"

*    *    *    *    *

When they next headed out, Miaka was tucked in front of Hotohori on his horse. It felt wrong, somehow - to ride without Miaka's comforting warmth at his back. He picked his eyes up from where they'd been fastened on his horse's ears. He just caught Miaka's eyes before she blushed and turned her face away. Nuriko swallowed hard and turned his attention back to the road. For some reason, he no longer felt so happy...

Once they'd traveled a few hours into bandit territory, Hotohori called a halt so they could get some water. Nuriko led the horses to a place they could graze and turned back to where he'd left Hotohori and Miaka. Overhearing their conversation, Nuriko ducked down and crouched behind a tree. What's going on...?

Hotohori was holding up the note from Tamahome and telling her what the younger seishi had written on the bottom - Ai shiteiru. His voice sounded like it was broken as he said those words... "He went into Kutou for his family, and his love, Miaka. You."

Miaka's voice was full of tears when she responded, "I know that. I do. I love him, too. But I miss him..."

Nuriko's instincts were screaming at him to go to Miaka, but he stayed were he was and let Hotohori comfort her. The Emperor continued speaking, "You love him, and he loves you, but... I love you too, Miaka." Nuriko turned to see Hotohori leaning in to kiss Miaka. At the last second, Miaka pulled away, "Don't!"

Hotohori stared at her, not moving, "Do you love him that much?"

Miaka made no response. Nuriko put a hand to his heart to stop it from pounding - maybe... If Hotohori realizes that Miaka doesn't love him, then maybe... Could he? Onegai... I don't ask for much... Onegai... Miaka screamed and Nuriko whirled to his feet and ran towards them, "Hotohori-sama! Miaka!" Before he was even halfway there, something hard and heavy slammed into his back, knocking him to the ground. He moaned in pain, and just managed to catch sight of 5 laughing figures standing over him before he blacked out... Deja vu...

An Interlude | Fushigi Yuugi Fanfiction | Part 5
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